What do home inspectors check when inspecting stairs?

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

We primarily do a safety inspection, looking for defects that may cause a person going up or down the stairs to trip and fall, because the statistics on stair-related injuries are so grim. About 1,400 people die in the U.S. each year as a result of a fall from a stair, and just under a million people are hospitalized yearly due to stair falls--over half of them in their own home. Falls are also the leading cause of hospitalizations among children and the elderly.

   So we take stair safety seriously. Here’s nine things we look for when examining stairs: 

1) The height of the riser (vertical piece) of stair should be a consistent dimension. If one of the risers is different, it can cause a person to trip. Sometimes the first or last riser in a stair run is a different because of a miscalculation by the stair builder. By the way, any set of steps with four or more risers is considered a stair by safety standards.

2) The stair riser (vertical piece) height should not exceed 7-3/4” in height, and the minimum tread (horizontal piece) depth is 10”. Also, the riser to tread ratio should conform to the normal cadence of a person. One rule-of-thumb is that two times the riser dimension plus the tread dimension should be between 24 and 26 inches. As the riser dimension decreases, the tread dimension should increase proportionately, and vice versa. 

3) Stairs should be a minimum of 3-feet wide and require a safe landing area at the top and bottom of the run, typically 3-feet square. A person should not have to stand on one of the steps, for example, to open a door at the end of the stairs. There are two exceptions to this requirement, however, that you can find at our blog post Is a landing always required at the top and bottom of stairs?

4) There should be reasonable headroom clearance, so you don’t bang your head half-way up the stairs, which is 6 feet 8 inches.

5) Any open side of a stair must have a railing that is a minimum of 34” high when measured from the end of the tread at the nosing, and pickets or other openings spaced so that a 4” sphere will not pass through them.

6) There should be a handrail on at least one side of the stairs, and it must be small enough around so that it can be firmly gripped, and at a comfortable height.

7) Lighting should illuminate the entire stair run and both landings, switched at both the top and bottom of interior stairs (called a 3-way switch).

8) Each stair tread less than 11-inches deep should have a nosing (small extension of the tread past the riser below it), and treads should provide reasonably good traction--not slippery or have a loose surface material.

9) Winders (stair treads that radiate from a center point in a spiral fashion) are subject to a complicated set of safety rules. But the jist of them is that there should be sufficient surface to lay your foot down on the tread without part of it sticking over the edge. 

   There are more safety guidelines that we check for...too many to enumerate here. But the primary way we examine a stair is to walk it. The defects usually become evident immediately. 

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Here’s links to a collection of our other blog posts about STAIRS:

Is a landing always required at the top and bottom of stairs? 

When is a railing required at stairs?

What is the building code for the minimum height of stair steps (risers)? 

When is a nosing required on a stair tread?

What is the building code requirement for receptacle outlets at stairs and stair landings?  

Are open stair risers acceptable?

What is the steepest residential stair allowed?

Why is a single step dangerous in a house?

 Do I need stairs at all exit doors from a mobile home? 

The stairs feel too steep. What's the building code? 

• What is the longest stair run allowed? 

• What is the lighting requirement for stairs?

• A light is required over a stair after how many steps/risers? 

• When is safety glass required for windows at stairs and stair landings?

   Visit our STAIRS page for other related blog posts on this subject, or go to the INDEX for a complete listing of all our articles.


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